Saturday, February 20, 2010

"Duel in San Francisco"

"Duel in San Francisco"

Challenger Maad Abu Ghazaleh and the Campaign to Unseat Tom Lantos

The Lessons of an Unsuccessful Campaign
"First you are an Arab"

How to do deal with the challenges we face as Arab and Muslim Americans? Regardless of who is the President of this country, as a community we are subject to unique challenges due to forces largely beyond our control. The United States is fighting a group of violent Muslims who commit their acts and justify them in the name of Islam. This has unfairly put us as Arab and Muslim Americans in a tough position.

Duel in San Francisco

One of the better documentaries made about Arab Americans after 9/11 is the documentary Duel in San Francisco by Allyson Luchak. Ms Luchak deals with the issue of Arab and Muslim Americans after 9/11 by weaving important questions about America and about our community around the campaign of Maad Abu Ghazaleh, a Palestinian American who ran as a libertarian against an entrenched member of Congress at the time, the late radical Zionist Tom Lantos.

Osama Siblani defines Arab- American Reality

The documentary opens with a- date 9/11/2002. This is the date that Ms. Luchak chose to begin taping of her documentary- one year after 9/11. One prominent Arab- American activist she interviewed was Osama Siblani of the Forum and Link’s sister Arab American publication, the Arab American News, Sada Al Watan. The way that Mr. Siblani framed the issues in that documentary still rings true today, almost nine years after the attacks and almost eight years after the documentary was made. Mr. Siblani told Ms Luchak that while this country is built on the idea that one is guilty until proven innocent, the Arab- American community after 9/11 finds itself being dealt with as guilty until proven innocent. A true statement then and a true statement now.

Maad Abu Ghazaleh: The Unlikely Candidate

Maad Abu Ghazaleh is a Palestinian American who came to the US in 1979 to study at Notre Dame University in Indiana. By 2001, he had degrees from Notre Dame, University of Virginia- Charlottesville, and Santa Clara University. He was an attorney and a business man who wrote and sold software. He lived in a mobile home by the ocean and spent his time alternating between working in his pajamas and enjoying the ocean. His hobbies included surfing the waters of Pacifica. Life was good. A shy and quiet person, he enjoyed his lifestyle and freedoms tremendously. He had no ambition to be wealthy, politically powerful or famous.
9/11 and its aftermath: Liberties Lost, a Scared Community and Slouching toward War
9/11 pulled Maad from his easy life. He was brought into politics by forces outside his control. He saw that Americans were losing cherished liberties in the name of security. He saw the Arab American and Muslim communities react to the national tragedy with fear and withdrawal. As Mr. Siblani stated in the documentary, 9/11 and its aftermath was a harsh blow to the community: many men were fired from their jobs simply for being Arab and/or Muslim, women were staying home for fear of attacks and children were being harassed in the schools for who they are. The country seemed to be on a war path in the Middle East with the war drums being beaten for war with Iraq, a nation that had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks. And it happened that one of the most vocal advocates of this war was none other than San Francisco’s congressman, Tom Lantos.

The Formidable Tom Lantos

The late Tom Lantos was no ordinary congressman. He had a war chest of one million dollars to spend on his election campaign. He was the only Holocaust survivor serving in congress He had been in congress for 22 years. He was a formidable incumbent with a lot of money to spend. He was no easy target for a challenger with no background in politics, no money and a name that most Americans could not pronounce. The challenger was also a Palestinian Muslim from the occupied Palestinian West Bank.

The Decision to Run

Maad told me that he decided to run despite the odds mainly because of how the community was reacting to the tragedy: laying low and hiding form the spot light. Nothing bothered him more. He told me that as Arab and Muslim Americans we should not be hiding but putting America to the test, that we are not responsible for 9/11 and should assert ourselves and be pro-active. He chose to run and despite advice to change his name he chose to run as Maad Abu Ghazaleh, the Palestinian Muslim American.

Media Reaction to the Run

Journalist Josh Richman told Ms Luchak in the documentary that what was different about Maad Abu Ghazaleh is that he ran as a Palestinian Muslim American. His identity was front and center. Other Arab and Muslim Americans who ran for public office did not focus on that aspect of their identity. This made his campaign different. That, Josh Richman said, was newsworthy.

Community Reception to the Campaign

The Arab and Muslim American communities were excited about this run. Maad's campaign brought in volunteers from different backgrounds, including Jewish and Muslim volunteers. It generated excitement in the community. While the chances of winning were weak, the Arab and Muslim American communities in the San Francisco area particularly felt empowered by the run- felt their American identity validated by this run. Here was an Arab, a Muslim, whose name has not been changed to Mike or Sam or Jim, running for office against a "big Zionist."

The Lessons of the Maad Campaign

Maad did not win. But running for office is not only about winning. It is important to be part of the political process. It’s not all about winning. Running for office means you bring issues to the table, you get media coverage for your issues, you empower your community and you acquire political skills that are useful for future runs. Also, you give the incumbent a challenge. No matter how strong an incumbent is, politicians are a paranoid lot and no threat, no matter how small, is ignored. It is a testament to the greatness of America that here was Maad, with no money and no political experience and belonging to a threatened community, debating Tom Lantos in Daly City. That is priceless.

First You are an Arab

There are hundreds of thousands of political positions to run for. We Arab Americans and Muslim Americans have no reason not to give 100% political participation that includes running for office. We should encourage our own to run for office and support them financially and otherwise, regardless of whether we think they can win. There are individuals in our community that will hold us back. Maad tells me that at a major anti- war rally in San Francisco another Arab American wanted to hold him back from speaking and responded to Maad's protests by saying "you don't understand." Coming to Detroit to fundraise, Maad met Mr. Nasser Beydoun, formerly of the Arab American Chamber of Commerce, who began his discouraging words by saying to Maad “first you are an Arab.”

The Abed Hamoud Run

Close to home I recall another courageous run, that of Abed Hamoud, for Dearborn mayor against the incumbent late mayor Guido. I recall running into two people who made comments that hold much insight into how our community thinks. One man originally from Southern Lebanon told me he would vote for Guido and not Hamoud because the people of Bint Jbail think they own the city and the last thing he needed to deal with is a mayor from Bint Jbail! The fact is Mr. Hamoud is from Tebnin and not Bint Jbail but still… Another man, a Palestinian attorney, told me that he is not a big fan of Mr. Hamoud but himself and his family will vote for him. We need more of the second attitude and less of the first.

"First you are an Arab" should not be used as discouraging words.